The Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit: UMA and the Future of Non-Rotating Formats
Welcome to the Mage-Ring Bully Pulpit, a column where I examine and discuss a topic to open up the discussion for the Magic community at large. For the non-U.S. American readers that might be wondering where I got the title for my column, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term as "a prominent public position (such as a political office) that provides an opportunity for expounding one's views."
On November 5th, Wizards announced Ultimate Masters, another set in line with the other Masters sets they have been producing ever since the introduction of Modern Masters. Despite being more expensive than any past Masters sets, the set includes some of Modern and Legacy's most wanted reprints as well as a box topper that comes when a customer purchases a box. The box topper includes a random "borderless" foil card from a list of chosen rares and mythic rares from the set. Additionally, the announcement was accompanied with the fact that Ultimate Masters – or UMA – would be the last Masters set, a shock for the eternal community that expected Masters sets to continue as a primary means of introducing needed reprints into circulation.
I think this decision, while subtle, has large implications for Magic's most prominent eternal formats, and I want to spend this week's article discussing what we should expect in regard to the future of Non-rotating and eternal formats.
The Importance of Eternal Formats
Before diving in further about what Ultimate Masters spells for the future of eternal formats, I think it's important to establish why it's good for the game to have non-rotating and eternal formats. I know that some players are very picky about the distinction between the two ("Modern isn't eternal!"), but for the sake of this article, I'm going to conflate the two because they serve a similar role.
Most notably, formats like Modern and Legacy provide a sanctioned avenue for the players' collection see play even after they rotate out of Standard. Players don't have to worry about their Ravnica shock lands becoming useless because they know that these cards can be used for their future Modern decks, and the same can be said about a multitude of current chase cards in Standard that will fit into an archetype in another format. Furthermore, players who want to play cards that didn't share the same Standard in the same deck can turn to these eternal formats to experience gameplay that they otherwise didn't get to. Want to see how Ancient Stirrings and the BFZ Eldrazi play together in the same deck? Well, with the help of Modern, you can! The existence of eternal formats thus emphasizes the collectability-aspect of Magic.
The corollary to this point is that eternal formats therefore provide the possibility of your collection not becoming completely worthless after rotation. While paying €200 for pieces of cardboard that then crash in value after two years would typically make people become hesitant in their purchasing decision, the idea of paying €200 that could end up being worth just as much further down the line (or even more) makes a big impact on how likely Magic players are willing to spend on their hobby. Making sure that Magic players continue playing Magic (and in turn purchasing Magic) requires formats such as Modern and Legacy to be supported by Wizards.
However, this decision to support eternal formats doesn't come without its share of issues.
The Eternal Conundrum
One of – if not the biggest – problems that Wizards has had to contend with regarding the existence of non-rotating formats is the cannibalization of the Standard player base. As mentioned earlier, playing Standard comes with the cost of cards rotating out and eventually becoming a fraction of what they were worth. While some cards maintain their price tags (and even fewer see them climb, as is the case with recent notables Liliana, the Last Hope and Collective Brutality), most cards end up seeing little play in formats such as Modern and Legacy. The €200 Standard deck might be worth a quarter of that come rotation, and the deck might not even remain viable for the entirety of its legality. Even if some of the best cards from Standard don't tank in value, there's enough of a value-bleed to concern anyone playing Standard. Many players that begin playing Magic by starting with Standard generally become painfully aware of the constant upkeep cost involved with rotation, at which point they discover the wealth of non-rotating formats awaiting them. While Modern and Legacy decks have much steeper buy-in costs, their upkeep costs are lower due to the lack of a need to constantly update the decks. While gameplay may be one of the many reasons a player decides to buy into an eternal format, the cost of maintaining a playable deck tends to be the biggest reason why players take the plunge into Modern and Legacy.
Here-in lies the issue: if non-rotating, eternal formats are too accessible, there's very little financial sense in playing Standard. However, Standard is the bread-and-butter of Magic and the entry point for entry-level players. Wizards, in considering the long-term health and profitability of the game, has to take part in this balancing act of appeasing two different groups who tend to be at odds with each other. One of the ways in which Wizards has tackled this problem is by keeping the entry point for eternal formats accessible largely on MTGO. Due to treasure chests on Magic Online, prices of Modern and Legacy cards have steadily been declining, and decks that would cost thousands of euros in paper can be had for a mere fraction of the price on MTGO. By creating a niche environment in which eternal formats can survive, Wizards has been able to provide an accessible space for the eternal community to play their formats.
Not surprisingly, Ultimate Masters falls in line with this trajectory that eternal formats are heading in.
What Ultimate Masters Brings to the Table
The announcement that Ultimate Masters would be the last in the of the Masters sets series is a puzzling one, considering the original development of Modern Masters was with the intention that the set would alleviate prices for Modern's staples. Doubly strange is that, with the complete spoilers of the set now available, the set seems to be packed with value of various Modern and Legacy cards that needed reprinting. If Wizards can print a Masters set where the important constructed cards are identified and reprinted into the set, why call it quits now?
One of the interesting bits of observation that I recall back when Modern Masters 2017 was spoiled was someone's comment that the set was too good, as if the set was some sort of Modern Masters swan song. While there were questionable upshifts in rarity (Snapcaster Mage and Cavern of Souls), the rare slot of the set was packed with value due to the presence of the enemy fetchlands, and in retrospect, Modern Masters 2017 provided Modern players with a short window in which to buy the reprinted staples at a discount price. If Modern players wanted to buy paper cards, right after the release of MM17 was the best time to do so, and it hasn't been the case since. Oddly enough, Modern Masters 2017 turned out to be the final iteration of Modern Masters – Masters sets were then (disastrously) changed to include a theme, such as Iconic Masters and Masters 25. Until the announcement of Ultimate Masters, Modern saw very little significant reprints for the format's most sought-after cards, and the cost of the format rose sharply. Speaking of Ultimate Masters, it is also a set that, in a similar vein to previous Modern Masters sets, seems to have hit the nail on the head regarding reprints and expected value. Yet, the fact that this will be the last Masters sets bodes ill for eternal formats, particularly in paper.
Buy, Buy, Buy
I articulated earlier in my article both the importance and problems that having an eternal format in Magic, and Wizards is in the right to not alienate a group of players by doing away with any of these formats. The existence of a multitude of formats allows players to play Magic in different ways, and it also increases the allure of Magic – a game where players can play with cards that are over twenty years old! However, the announcement of Ultimate Masters and the cancellation of the Masters sets should be a clear warning sign for anyone wanting to buy into eternal formats. Namely, players who are interested in playing Modern and Legacy should be buying the UMA reprints as soon as possible because there is a high likelihood that we will not see reprints for these cards for a very, very long time. Similar to how Modern Masters was a swan song and the best time to buy into Modern in recent memory, Ultimate Masters will be that for eternal formats in general – it's hard to imagine a new product that can take the spot of the Masters sets as reprint sets aimed at getting more Modern and Legacy staples into circulation.
It also makes sense that, in the light of next year's Standard rotation and how the presence of Arena will put pressure on Wizards to come up with a possible solution involving a new non-rotating format, eternal formats like Modern and Legacy will be less and less the focus of reprint sets. While old cards may pop up from time to time in Standard, it'd be unwise to count on that as a primary means for reprints.
If you're a big paper Modern or Legacy player who is planning on expanding his or her collection, it's not a bad idea to push Ultimate Masters to the top of your holiday gift list.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.